Editor's note: After this story aired the Washington State Board of Education advised KING 5 that the story quoted the wrong RCW. The correct law for school district waivers is RCW 28A.305.140.
School districts in Washington state must provide 180 days of instruction for students each school year, according to state law. But growing numbers of districts aren't meeting that requirement, thanks to a waiver program that lets districts shave days off the annual calendar, and a loophole that lets districts count partial days as full ones.
A KING 5 Investigation found that 117 school districts, or 40 percent of the districts in Washington, received state-approved “waivers” of the 180-day requirement. Just five years ago only 10 percent of districts were granted such waivers by the Washington State Board of Education. On a waiver day, teachers report to school, but not students.
Seattle elementary schools have a three-day waiver for the current year. Edmonds, Northshore and Shoreline schools have five-day waivers. Federal Way has seven days waived from its school calendar this year.
The rise in waivers comes as districts find new ways to carve up their calendars to meet basic education requirements while finessing budget cuts.
“It’s hard to escape the fact that the needs of adults are sometimes pitted against the needs of children,” said Ben Rarick, the executive director of the State Board of Education.
Documents obtained by KING 5 show that the board has had concerns for several years about the “erosion of student contact time” caused by waivers. Still, the board has continued to approve them.
Rarick said the law doesn’t give the board much authority to turn down waiver applications submitted by school districts.
“If the legislature wants a waiver program that is used sparingly, that is only used in unique circumstances, we’re all for that. But that would require a change in the law,” said Rarick.
The State Board of Education says the bigger concern is that schools that are denied waivers could resort to an option potentially more disruptive to student learning – partial school days via early dismissals or late starts.
“We just go along with it I guess, but it’s a little chaotic,” said Kris Fuehr of Issaquah on a recent Wednesday morning as she readied her three daughters for school.
“You set your alarm clocks differently,” she said as she rushed her elementary school-aged daughter Darby off to school. Darby's school starts at its regular time on Wednesdays, but releases students two hours early.
Fuehr's middle school daughters, meanwhile, start class two hours late on Wednesday. A working parent from the neighborhood drops off her daughter at the Fuehr house on these days to wait until school starts.
“Kind of a neighborhood effort to get everybody to school on Wednesday,” said Fuehr.
Issaquah has 42 partial days each school year and two state-approved waiver days.
Issaquah’s Associate Superintendent Ron Thiele said teachers use the non-classroom time created by those days primarily for two reasons: Parent-teacher conferences and professional development for teachers.
“We have a lot of demands that have been put on educators with increasing rigor, with the integration of new technologies into teaching, (and a) new evaluation system,” said Thiele.
In recent years state lawmakers cut money that paid for three days of teacher development outside the 180-day school year. Thiele said his district can’t pay the cost of providing that training outside the student school year.
“The real challenge is where do you find the time to do that, without adding the additional days,” said Thiele.
Districts have turned to partial days because they allow two goals to be met in one day. Washington law says that if students come to class and receive even one minute of instruction, the district can count that as a full school day.
Districts that dismiss class early still receive credit for a school day while also giving teachers their professional development time.
It’s a formula that many districts say is working well. But there’s been almost no research on the impact of these disruptions is on student learning.
“I’m not aware of other states that have used the half-day closings in the way that you’ve described,” said Dr. Dave Marcotte, a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland.
Dr. Marcotte said waiver days are generally used by states when school days are lost to foul weather, not because of funding problems.
In 2008, Marcotte’s research determined that when districts lost a week to ten days of class because of snow closures, test scores fell by 2 percent.
He said that finding could serve as a warning for Washington’s growing combination of waived and/or partial school days.
“I have a prediction, certainly,” said Marcotte. "Anytime you reduce the amount of time kids spend in school, test scores are going go down and the amount they go down is directly a function of how much time is lost. Test scores will go down especially for kids we might worry about most -- that is kids who are from low-income families and kids who are minority students.”
The Washington State Board of Education and many school administrations point out that another part of the law is never waived -- the part requiring that districts meet "a district-wide annual average" of 1,000 hours of classroom instruction in a school year.
Even with partial days or waived days, districts must meet that 1,000-hour average requirement each school year.
Dr. Marcotte said he still has reservations.
“The evidence about just how you sprinkle in half-days, the impact that [it] has on learning is not that sound,” said Marcotte. "Certainly, we know from all kinds of settings, more time in school means better learning outcomes for kids.”